In early 2021, the southwest corner of the Biju Patnaik University of Technology campus in Rourkela lay barren and empty. Fast-forward to 2023 and that piece of land is the site of one of the biggest hockey stadiums in the world. On Saturday, the city of Rourkela descended on the Birsa Munda International Hockey Stadium to witness India launch their 2023 FIH Hockey Men’s World Cup campaign with a clinical 2-0 win over Spain.

Even though India’s match wasn’t going to begin until 7 pm, fans began queuing up hours before push-off. By the time England’s match against Wales began the lines stretched for a kilometer in front of each of the entry gates of the majestic arena.

And they got a chance to watch not just India win 2-0, but one of their own – Odisha’s Amit Rohidas – score and be nominated player of the match.

Hockey World Cup, Group D India vs Spain, as it happened: Amit, Hardik on target in 2-0 win

As the Pool D opener between England and Wales got underway, fans continued to pour into the stadium. Every Welsh and English attack was cheered for by an appreciative Rourkela crowd simply happy to watch quality hockey without being hung up over which team came up with the move.

The smell of freshly-applied paint hung in the air as did the sense of excitement. As the clock ticked closer to 7 pm, one could sense the anticipation levels reach a tipping point. When India finally entered the field, there was a collective release of emotions as 20,000 fans let out a huge roar. It was safe to say that for the 60 minutes that followed, both teams would find communicating with each other difficult amidst the din.

“We had spoken about how if communication is not possible [because of the crowd noise], you need to know your responsibilities and make sure you are looking around yourself and know where you need to be. Defensively, every player did well,” captain Harmanpreet Singh said after the match.

Ahead of the match, Spain captain Alvaro Iglesias had insisted that his young side wouldn’t be too bothered by the prospect of playing in front of a partisan crowd. And for the opening five minutes, the youthful Spaniards put India on the backfoot. Iglesias nearly gave Spain the lead in the first minute when he beat Surender Kumar and PR Sreejesh with a low shot. Only he couldn’t get past the backtracking Varun Kumar who calmly flicked the ball away.

It did not take long for India to grow into the game. A tackle here, a steal there and India were efficiently breaking up the Spanish attacks.

A minute-long firework show precluded the match but it was local boy and India vice-captain Rohidas who provided the biggest bang of the night when he fired in India’s first goal at this World Cup and 200th across all editions. Harmanpreet Singh’s drag-flick was charged down but Rohidas was at hand to smash the ball into the back of the net to send the Birsa Munda Stadium into delirium. The goal was doubly special with Rohidas later revealing that his family and friends had come to watch him play.

Former India coach Harendra Singh had once described Hardik Singh as a mix of the legendary Spanish footballers Xavi and Andres Iniesta. On Friday, the 24-year-old from Khursopur displayed the qualities of both the footballers with a commanding display in the centre of the park.

Hardik made 32 passes in the match, a figure only bettered by Harmanpreet and Spain’s Ignacio Rodriguez, both defenders. He also showed his skills in reading the play, regularly intercepting Spanish passes and putting in good tackles to frustrate his opponents. In the 28th minute, he made Spain pay by winning the ball in their own half and breezing past multiple defenders, a la Iniesta, before slotting the ball in goal via a Spanish stick.

Learning from past mistakes

The last time these two sides met in the FIH Pro League in October and November 2022 India gave away 22 penalty corners to go with four green cards and two yellow cards. India were reckless in defence making poor choices and ultimately putting themselves under increased pressure.

In Rourkela on Friday, India were a much more disciplined side. Things did get a bit testy in the final quarter after Abhishek received a 10-minute yellow card, albeit a harsh one. Nevertheless, India were able to ride out the final Spanish wave to get their World Cup campaign off to a winning start.

“We played with 10 men and we have been practicing playing with 10 men,” coach Graham Reid said in the post-match press conference. “I said before the tournament started that at some point during the tournament, we would be down to 10 men. We got in front a lot today and that was very important. We were first on the ball and that was what made the difference,”

“As a coach, you do lots of things to try and plug holes and fix problems. There’s a term called iterative which means just going over and over and over. You don’t know which of the things fixes the problem. I am a big mindset person. A lot of the things we speak about tactically, end up being easily fixed when you have a good mentality. There was energy, tone and workrate. So yeah, I think that was probably the difference,” he added.

There was a lot of talk about pressure and the weight of expectations days and even weeks before India took the field in Rourkela. But even as Harmanpreet Singh endured a rare goalless night, Sundergarh and Odisha’s son Amit Rohidas stepped up and delivered in front of adoring fans.